I recently linked to a really inspiring group hiking the PCT in 2016 called Packing it Out. These guys hiked the AT in 2015 and packed out over 1000 pounds of trash during the duration of their hike. Recently, the Packing it Out crew got 126 pounds of garbage in one haul making it their record breaker! While it's really inspiring to hear of someone doing work like this, it makes me wonder as a guide and a hiker myself why in the world it's necessary to need hikers to have to do this in the first place. My post today is more of a rant about why I feel like it's getting more and more important for all hikers and walkers to pack out their garbage.
Chances are you've been on a hike for a few hours or maybe even an overnight backpacking trip and you've seen what I have dubbed to be Charmin Flowers - blooms of used toilet paper women leave behind on the side of the trail after they pee. Recently, I was at a campsite in the Smokies where an active bear warning was posted. Imagine my shock when I wandered into the woods and found panty liners stuck to the base of trees! No wonder animals are a problem at this particular campsite! The next night on our trip we had a problem bear wandering through camp several times. He was not afraid of us and even kept digging holes at the further edge of the campsite and eating something. After we finally pelted him with rocks to let him know he wasn't welcome, I went to investigate. Yep. It was a hole someone threw their toilet paper into and hardly buried at all. Living in the US we are all used to living in a disposable society now. You throw your garbage in the can and someone comes once a week and picks it up and you never have to think about it again! You can flush things down a toilet and they're magically gone! However, when it comes to heading out into the woods people often have this same disposable mentality. Your toilet paper and small trash isn't magically gone at all - someone else has to pick up after you... and isn't going to be happy if they're the ones peeling your panty liners off a hemlock tree!
Another way we are seeing garbage in the woods is by people who truly mean well. A former thru hiker will hike a cooler full of goodies, maybe with a few bags of snacks as well, out to a trail junction and leave it for other grateful hikers. Unfortunately, our former thru hiker isn't coming back to pack that cooler and garbage out - he has just left a note on the cooler and trail magic for hikers to pack out their trash to the trailhead. How many hikers do you think are going to do this? Chances are, the hikers will leave their trash inside that cooler, which will sit in the sunshine and cook for a period of a few days or even weeks. Animals may come by and tear apart the cooler trying to get to the sweet smelling food trash inside. The cooler may get knocked over and the trash will blow into the nearby woods. Either way, our well-meaning hiker has created a problem for someone else to deal with.
My most common place to find garbage, however, isn't either of these two, although the toilet paper is becoming a bigger and bigger problem where I'm at now that it's summer time. The most common place I get to pick up someone else's inconsiderate litter is from a fire ring or a fireplace. If you're the kind of person who is burning garbage on your backpacking trip I have some advice for you - STOP IT. If you're a person who believes it's the best way to deal with trash let me offer you some statistics on black bears. Black bears can pick up and track a scent for two miles. There is no better way to invite an animal to your campsite than to burn your trash. Also, I guarantee your fire isn't anywhere near hot enough to burn the things you're tossing in there. The most common culprit would be Mountain House freeze dried food bags. Next would be aluminum foil, followed by tin cans, beer cans, and the pop tops from glass bottles. Why you'd pack glass bottles in a backpack and carry them is beyond me, but I can promise you the items you're attempting to burn aren't going to be gone completely. It turns out someone like me has to dig through that fire pit and pack it out for you. Meanwhile, you were out for just one night and were capable of doing it on your own.
The final thing I want to talk about is something I don't see a lot in the Smokies but I do see a lot in the neighborhood I live in - dumping. I live in an area only a few miles from a small local trash collecting facility. This facility was recently closed for a few months to repave it and bring in better collection and recycling systems. Instead of driving on a few more miles to a larger trash facility, people around here decided the remote, curvy road I lived on was a much better place to dump their tires, recliners, fast food trash, and even leave their entire trash cans filled with garbage in front of an empty house at the end of the cul-de-sac. Dumping is a problem on distance trails as well, especially at remote trailheads where road access sees sparse traffic. Either way, again, this trash isn't disappearing. Someone else has to pick it up for you.
I went on this rant for a reason. I want people to start thinking about what truly happens to your trash in the woods when you leave it behind. Someone else has to walk behind you to pick it up. If you're big, bad, and strong enough to go out for a hike into the woods you are definitely big, bad, and strong enough to pack out everything you brought in with you - even apple cores, orange peels, peach pits, etc. I am a strong advocate for packing out your own toilet paper as well. By packing out your garbage, you're not only keeping the woods a prettier place, you're also helping keep animals wild by not allowing them to get access to human garbage.
How do you feel when you see litter out on the trails? Are you the kind of person who picks up microtrash? What's the most bizarre thing you've seen discarded?